Woman Walking Her Dog in the Sun to Ease Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Image Credit: Yan Krukau

SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER

8 WAYS TO EASE SEASONAL SADNESS

Image Credit: Yan Krukau

In these parts, January reports the highest number of newly documented cases of depression. Living in Manitoba now, I can certainly understand why. I’ll bet you do, too.

When stark, skeletal trees dot the snow-covered landscape for what seems like an eternity, it’s easy for your brain to lapse into what is medically known as “seasonal affective disorder” or S.A.D.

What is happening here?

Well, fluctuations in weather conditions and limited daylight during seasonal shifts can cause the body to falter in its clockwork routines, causing imbalances. 

Sudden and abrupt changes in temperature alone can make it difficult for the body to adapt. And this, in turn, may place extra strains on it.

If this sounds familiar, keep reading. Because the first step toward easing these symptoms is to understand what they are, what causes them and how this all happens.

A Desolate Winter Road through an Allee of Tall, Leafless Trees
A Desolate Winter Road through an Allee of Tall, Leafless Trees

WHAT IS SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER?

Seasonal Affective Disorder is considered a type of temporary depression that has been associated, in studies, with a biochemical imbalance in the brain. One that seems to be triggered by fewer hours of daylight and far less exposure to sunlight.

As natural light wanes, you may begin to experience a shift in your circadian rhythm (or body clock) that may cause you to feel a disruption in your daily routine. 

It can start with something as simple as waking up in the morning, in total darkness. Rather than rising shortly after the sun. 

It seems to affect women more than men and is more common in those living farther from the equator, where daylight lasts anywhere from a short 8 hours to none at all, nearest the poles.

Feelings of sapped energy and moodiness typically fade with the darkness, in spring. But, what can you do to ease these feelings when they occur? What exactly is happening?

WHAT CAUSES SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER?

We’ve talked about our sleep-wake cycle or circadian rhythm playing a part. But what are our brains actually doing to make us feel this way?

Aside from our body clocks getting thrown off, two specific hormones are being affected. The functions of which get all out of whack when it gets dark early and we still have stuff to do.  

The human body has adapted to utilize these hormones, over hundreds of thousands of years, for very practical purposes. These are melatonin and serotonin.

Melatonin – When your eyes no longer detect daylight (in other words, it’s nighttime), your brain produces this hormone so that you can have a sound and restorative sleep. 

When daylight is detected again (morning), the brain ceases that production, allowing you to be awake and alert throughout your day.

A Purple, Pink and Orange Sunrise Sky with Tall, Dark leafless Trees in the Forground
A Purple, Pink and Orange Sunrise Sky with Tall, Dark leafless Trees in the Forground

Serotonin – This hormone not only allows us to awaken, when the morning sun hits our eyelids, but it regulates mood, cognition, reward, learning and memory. Less sunlight per day reduces our body’s production of serotonin, creating feelings of fatigue and emotional instability. 

Serotonin function also gets a boost from Vitamin D. Which we also get less of on shorter days.

WHO EXPERIENCES SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER?

According to statistics gathered by the Canadian Mental Health Association, “About 2 to 3% of Canadians will experience severe SAD in their lifetime. Another 15% will experience a milder form. People with seasonal affective disorder make up about 10% of all depression cases.”

Globally, 75% of all documented cases have been women (researchers have yet to determine why that is), with the earliest cases showing in young adulthood. 

People who suffer from other forms of depression or bipolar disorder are at increased risk during the darker months. These conditions are already associated with the disruption of serotonin and melatonin production.

But, moodiness in winter doesn’t necessarily mean you have clinical depression or bipolar disorder. You may be simply experiencing a temporary chemical imbalance triggered by shorter days. 

So, what are the symptoms of S.A.D.? What should we look for?

WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER?

If winter weather has got you down and you’re interested to know if it might be seasonal affective disorder, be mindful and pay close attention to your body. Is it a physical sensation or an emotional one? Perhaps both?

The following are common symptoms of S.A.D.:

  • A loss of interest in activities you usually enjoy
  • Social withdrawal (even in a virtual space)
  • Decreased ability to focus or concentrate
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Significant changes in appetite

Surprisingly, seasonal affective disorder can occur in every season of the year. With different symptoms manifesting in shorter vs longer days.

FALL and WINTER SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER

SAD affects people most often in seasons with shorter days. Which, in the northern hemisphere, is from October to March. In the southern hemisphere, farther from the equator, these season-specific symptoms can occur in people from April to September.

  • Oversleeping
  • Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Fatigue and/or low energy
A Woman Experiencing Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder Sits in a Window Sill Staring out a Window onto a Cold, Grey Cityscape.
A Woman Experiencing Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder Sits in a Window Sill Staring out a Window onto a Cold, Grey Cityscape.

SPRING and SUMMER SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER

Less often, longer days can trigger the reverse of those symptoms experienced in darker months. Some studies have shown that those living in temperate climates with year-round, summer-like temperatures are more likely to experience the following symptoms when the days are longer rather than shorter. Simply because the brain needs a healthy balance of day and nighttime hours.

  • Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
  • Poor appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Agitation or anxiety
  • Increased irritability

WAYS to EASE the SYMPTOMS of SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER

While there is currently no definitive cure-all for seasonal bouts of depression, there are steps that you can take to ease your symptoms, preventing them from becoming more severe over time.

Another plus? Once you’re able to identify symptoms that recur every year, you can take steps to prevent them before they start. 

For more severe symptoms, a chat with your doctor, especially before the onset of symptoms, can result in more support and medical assistance in alleviating symptoms. Allowing you to enjoy the season. 

Read on to learn 10 different ways to ease and prevent seasonal affective disorder symptoms.

A Woman Speaking with Her Doctor about Her Winter Depression Symptoms
A Woman Speaking with Her Doctor about Her Winter Depression Symptoms

INCREASE INDOOR DAYLIGHT EXPOSURE

There are several ways you can get a little more sun (even on a cloudy day). By doing so, your body will produce more natural vitamin D and give your serotonin levels a much-needed boost. 

  • If possible, move your workspace near a window. If working from home, near a window, or under a skylight.
  • If you have a sunroom, spend more time there. Working, reading or enjoying hobbies.
  • Clear pathways and entryways of winter snow on sunny days.
  • If possible, remove screens from west or north-facing windows to allow in maximum light.

GET REGULAR EXERCISE

Moving your body through exercise is a simple, yet powerfully effective way to increase serotonin levels and other beneficial biochemicals in the brain. 

When we exercise or do other things that are good for us, our brains release endorphins (happiness hormones) as a reward for doing those things. How’s that for self-care motivation?

Research has shown that these happy hormones can balance out the biochemical upheaval that causes seasonal affective disorder. In more severe cases, they may help medication work more effectively. 

Going for a brisk walk outside, even on a cloudy day, can provide enough daylight exposure to help ward off those winter blues.

If you live in a harsh winter region, doing your exercise close to a light-filled window can accomplish the same.

A Woman Walking Her Dog in the Sun to Ease Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
A Woman Walking Her Dog in the Sun to Ease Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

SPEND TIME with FAMILY and FRIENDS

One of the things that make humans amazing is our imagination. But, during emotional downtimes (as with seasonal affective disorder), our imaginations can distort reality a bit. Often making us feel worse instead of better.

I can’t stress enough how important social support is when we’re feeling down. Family, friends, even the guy who comes to clear your driveway of snow, can act as a productive soundboard.    

Go hang out with other humans. Or just call them, text them, message them, whatever. Just share how you’re feeling and let the people, who love and care about you, help steer you back to center. 

ENGAGE IN MIND-BODY ACTIVITIES

This is one that I do every day. Winter blues or not. Why? Because mind-body activities like meditation stimulate the function of the pineal gland in our brains, creating more melatonin (remember that hormone?), allowing us to relax. Meditation also increases serotonin levels. Bingo!

Activities that encourage a healthy mind-body connection, help us stay focused on the present and not get wrapped up in anxiety that is driven by past or future events.

Yoga, tai chi, guided imagery and music therapy (my hubby’s favorite), even caring for your houseplants, all contribute to that mind-body connection in a healthy, effective way, while holding the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder at bay.

A Woman Listening to Music to Ease Seasonal Affective Disorder
A Woman Listening to Music to Ease Seasonal Affective Disorder

DO THINGS that YOU ENJOY

There’s no forcing fun. It’s just something that comes naturally when you’re doing something you enjoy. But, picking up a leisurely project and using it to distract our minds, is something we can plan for and then do. How much better you feel once you start may surprise you. 

Hobbies – These can keep you in the moment by focusing your attention on enjoyable activities. Helping to neutralize any stress or anxiety resulting from past or future worries.

Winter Gardening – Studies have shown that when we interact with plants, biochemicals in our brains are released that slow our heart rates to healthy levels, minimize anxiety and improve focus and concentration. 

Binge-watching a comedy series – Laughing increases your intake of oxygen. Which stimulates healthy heart activity, lung and muscle function and increases the production of those all-important happy hormones in the brain. 

IMPROVE YOUR NUTRITION

It’s time to break out those salad recipes! Eating green, leafy vegetables can markedly decrease seasonal affective disorder symptoms. The darker the green, the better. These foods are rich in folate which helps our brains function more efficiently.

Fruits such as apples, bananas, citrus, grapefruit and fresh berries can do the same. Proper nutrition encourages a balance of hormones in the brain, like our friends melatonin and serotonin. 

When we focus on maintaining a healthy diet (cooking is a great hobby!) we’re ensuring ourselves fewer mood fluctuations and increased moments of peace.

Healthy Meals, like this Lettuce, Tomato and Cucumber Salad Help Ward off Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
Healthy Meals, like this Lettuce, Tomato and Cucumber Salad Help Ward off Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

AVOID ALCOHOL and DRUGS

Following a stressful event, how often have you thought to yourself, “(Sigh) I need a drink”. Over time, we’ve learned, by cultural example, to seek relief in alcohol and/or drugs. 

While this practice may seem to calm the nerves, it only does so for a very short while.

At this point, these substances begin to significantly lower the production of certain biochemicals in the brain, like serotonin and norepinephrine, which keep us on an even keel.

When these hormones stop flowing, alcohol and drugs end up making worse that which we were trying to ease, by increasing the duration and severity of depressive episodes.

If you’re experiencing symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, be mindful of the potential urge to seek out these false “quick fixes”. Acknowledge it and then let it pass.

The great activity suggestions on this list will support the result you’re looking for, which is to feel better.

WHEN to SEEK MEDICAL HELP

That is, of course, unless symptoms last for longer than a couple of days at a time or begin to include feelings of hopelessness or worse. In this case, taking advantage of modern medical assistance is strongly encouraged. 

In days past, people had no choice but to simply deal with it. But, today we’re lucky to have healthcare providers who understand the validity and difficulty of seasonal affective disorder and know exactly how to help. 

Seeking help when we need it is not, in any way, a sign of weakness. It’s a display of intelligence and an acknowledgment of the best way to resolve our medical issues. 

So, if you feel you need medical help, just reach out. You’ll be very glad you did. 

Elderly People Reaching Out for Help with Their Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
Elderly People Reaching Out for Help with Their Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

HOW LONG DOES S.A.D LAST?

The duration of seasonal affective disorder depends on its severity and whether or not the experienced feelings of depression are associated with a larger issue.

Mild symptoms typically last anywhere from a few days to a few months. Longer and more severe symptoms may require medical assistance and proper diagnosis. Relief follows fairly quickly, with the right treatment. 

THE IMPORTANCE of SELF-CARE

With so many things on our daily to-do lists (especially in these trying times), we usually shove our own care to the bottom of it. 

Yet, in spring, summer, autumn and winter, self-care is vitally important. We need to keep our own teacups filled and filled well. 

Why? Because it’s the overflow that we’re able to share with others. We won’t have anything to offer family, friends, colleagues and others if our own teacups are empty. 

A Comforting Cup of Tea is Poured from a Red, Metal Tea Kettle into a Glass Tea Cup on a Wooden Table
A Comforting Cup of Tea is Poured from a Red, Metal Tea Kettle into a Glass Tea Cup on a Wooden Table

Is all of this worth it? Yes. Because you’re worth it. 

SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER FAQ

Does vitamin D help with SAD?

Vitamin D is sometimes referred to as the “sunshine” element due to our body’s production of it when our skin is exposed to the sun’s UV rays. Interestingly, for some, this natural process seems to have a more positive effect against SAD than dietary supplements. But, these are still helpful alternatives for those who are at risk of skin cancer or are sensitive to the sun’s rays.

Can seasonal allergies feel like anxiety?

To date, there is no direct evidence to suggest a clear causation link between allergies and anxiety. Allergies alone wouldn’t be enough to trigger severe anxiety. That being said, intense allergy symptoms can potentially be a contributing factor to anxiety when combined with others.

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